The old anecdote indicating the importance of having many strong players on a team, rather than just one or two highly-talented individuals came crashing into focus for the Winnipeg Jets this past summer. With the Stanley Cup Playoffs operating under a new format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 24 teams were pulled into hub city “bubbles” to determine which squads would move on to the opening round of the NHL’s postseason.
In August, the Jets faced off against their former Smythe Division rival Calgary Flames, in a play-in series, to which many predicted Winnipeg would have the upper hand. Building off of the experience of making it to the Western Conference Final in 2018 – where the Jets were led by forward Mark Scheifele, who put up an NHL record 11 ‘road goals’ as part of his 14 total goals and 20 points in 17 postseason contests that spring – Winnipeg was the easy favourite.
But the Flames seemingly marched on as victors just 5:39 into Game 1 of the five-game series… well, not exactly. But following a first period, offensive zone dump-in, Scheifele – who was skating in his third shift of the game – was checked into the boards by known agitator Matthew Tkachuk, whose skate caught the back of the Jets’ point leader’s leg. Scheifele was then sent awkwardly to the ice, where he writhed in pain as Edmonton’s Rogers Place grew silent. That shift was Scheifele’s last of the playoffs, as the 27-year-old was ruled out with a lower-body injury for the duration of the best-of-five.
Winnipeg also lost sniper Patrik Laine and depth forward Mason Appleton to injury for the remainder of the series in that same opening game. Not only were the Jets missing a substantial amount of offensive firepower (Scheifele, Laine and Appleton had previously combined for 62 goals during the 2019-20 regular season), but the team also clearly lacked the heart and leadership that Scheifele had been known to provide on a day-to-day basis.
Immediately, attention was shifted to the villain Tkachuk in the form of retribution. Jets captain Blake Wheeler dropped the gloves with the 22-year-old shortly after Scheifele’s exit, before head coach Paul Maurice aggressively called out the Flames’ winger on the dangerous play, citing clear intent to injure.
“Oh, it was intentional,” coach Maurice said post-game. “It was a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg. You can’t see it on the program feed, but you take the blueline feed (only accessible by NHL review staff and coaches) and you zoom in – he went after the back of his leg. He could have cut his Achilles. He could have ended the man’s career. It was an absolutely filthy, disgusting act.”
With the Jets ultimately falling to the Flames in four games, Scheifele spoke publicly following the series, quickly offering up his sincere forgiveness to Tkachuk, while sticking to his roots in saying that everything does, in fact, “happen for a reason”.
“I’m a guy that forgives pretty easily,” Scheifele said in his year-end media availability. “I can definitely hold a grudge once in a while if something bad happens, but the way my parents raised me, you should forgive everyone, and that’s all you can do. You wish the best on every person. I have no hard feelings.”
Although still recovering, Scheifele knows just how lucky he was in managing to dodge a more serious injury, such as a severed Achilles.
“I’m thankful it wasn’t as serious as it could have been,” he reflected. “I had a lot of bad thoughts go through my mind that I was going to be out for six months, or that my career could be over. That was tough on me, and the worst part was the anticipation of getting some answers (from doctors). But all I could do was thank God that I am on the mend; I didn’t need surgery, and I’ll be back better than ever.”
When asked about who he sought comfort from during such a dark time, Schiefele – who is a regular within the Jets’ team chapel program – spoke about his family, close friends, as well as team chaplain Lorne Korol.
“My mom and dad obviously are number one and two that I turn to. You turn to the people that you love most in your life. I turned to our chaplain Lorne Korol, as well. When you’re thinking about the worst, and you get negative, you know you’ve got to turn it around and look at it in a different light. And God’s got a plan for everything. You can start speculating and thinking, ‘what if this’ or ‘what if that,’ and I finally got into the mode where I knew where I was, and I knew there was going to be a plan, and I was going to be fine.”
Much like any Jets fan, Korol has seen Scheifele grow in a variety of ways over his nine seasons in Winnipeg. However, according to the team’s spiritual advisor, the former Barrie Colt’s Christian faith has easily been his most significant beneficiary.
“This injury was really tough on Mark, but I was impressed at his reliance on God and his strong belief that God has a bigger plan for him,” Korol told Promise Keepers Canada – Impactus. “It is easy to have faith when things are going good, but he was able to turn to God and trust in Him in the midst of adversity. I am so proud of Mark. He continues to really grow in his faith.”
The timing really couldn’t have been worse for Scheifele, who had spent the better part of the NHL’s pause working alongside four other athletes on the league’s Return to Play Committee. In helping create the framework of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Scheifele was only able to skate for a few minutes. But despite it all, he remains positive.
“God’s got a plan for everything, so you’ve just got to take it in stride,” he admitted. “That was my duty that I did for the NHLPA to get the game back and running; you’ve just got to put your own individual needs behind others. Obviously, I’m very happy that hockey’s back on and that I even got to play three shifts rather than not even be in playoffs, so that’s the lucky part.”
Photo by: Bahia Taylor